Konstantin Grcic on Silicon Valley


6 January 2015

“They don’t spend anything on office furniture," says German designer Konstantin Grcic about the tech companies of Silicon Valley. "It is something that has to be cheap and has to be quickly accessible. They buy a lot of furniture on eBay because they can have it within 24 hours.”

This attitude was what inspired the design of Hack, a prototype office desk that Grcic has developed with Swiss furniture brand Vitra. Hack previewed last autumn at the Orgatec fair in Cologne, Germany.

Hack is unlike anything that Vitra has produced before. While both Grcic and Vitra are known for their meticulous, highly researched products, Hack is raw and purposefully unresolved.Its work surface is height adjustable and contained within three wooden panels that form a small booth. When not in use, the entire product collapses into a flat box shape. It is a proposal that borrows something of the flexibility of Silicon Valley office systems, where team size can change rapidly and rigidity is anathema.

In the interview that follows Grcic discusses the creation of Hack and the role of the Silicon Valley tech giants in its conception. Moreover, he reflects on the place of unfinished works in the Vitra catalogue as well as the advantages of showing prototypes in a public forum.

Development models of the Hack system for Vitra

The process of Hack's creation is interesting – going to Silicon Valley and studying working patterns within startups and bigger IT firms. Can you tell me a little more?

Eckart Maise, the head of product development at Vitra, and I went to Los Angeles and San Fransisco. Vitra America made all these appointments for us, which was really an amazing lineup, with architectural firms designing big offices for companies like Facebook, Google and Apple,which we also went to. It was an amazing trip. We had several appointments per day and in between we were in a limousine driving from one place to the other. We kept looking at each other and thinking “Is this real?”

What similarities did you notice between these companies?

I can only say if you have the chance to go there and do a trip like we did, you should. It is a really amazing world –full of cliches but a lot of interesting stuff also and you meet amazing people there. They're very open, very generous and very inviting. Apple was the only company that had very strict rules; you are practically not allowed into the building. But then, Apple is producing a product whereas the others are producing code. Maybe it is understandable.

What we saw was that these companies are not so different, with the exception of Apple. They all want to be cool and they are free and easy. Lifestyle plays a huge role in these offices. The real decisive package for recruiting good people is what you can offer them. They call it the lifestyle package. At Google they have a sushi chef, a Mexican restaurant and steakhouse. They're all free. You can have free laundry and they will repair your car while you are at work and your kids can go into free daycare. Basically these companies are extensions of a college campus, so everything is free and easy, but on a very professional level. It goes far beyond the desk work.

So we went there as Vitra Office and in terms of office furniture the message was very clear and quite shocking. For them, office furniture is a commodity. They don’t spend anything on office furniture. It is something that has to be cheap and has to be quickly accessible. They buy a lot of furniture on eBay because they can have it within 24 hours. These companies are growing fast and shrinking and splitting up, and all of that means that office furniture is a whole different thing for them. This is where the Hack idea came from. Making a desk that is a simple box or a simple device or tool, a very, very basic structure that creates a workspace, a desk, a table or even a small space for an individual to work. 

The ethos behind the project was inspired by Grcic and Eckart Maise's impressions of the working habits of tech companies in Silicon Valley

How did you develop that further?

We have this sit/stand mechanism. Height adjustable desks are a big thing in California. That is what they all want, to be able to stand and sit. It is not that you either stand or you sit, but you do both and you change all the time. We had seen offices where there are desks where you can do that. They are all very large offices with at least 50 people, 100 or 200 people in one space. You have the 2m-tall basketball type, American next to a small Taiwanese employee and then the tall guy decides to stand up and work and the Taiwanese is sitting next to the guy or in front of him and the whole office just becomes so messy. Desk heights are different and tables hanging down and you can see the guy’s belly and all the shit they store underneath the desk.

Basically the box came from that. To create three sides and the tabletop moves within these fixed three sides of the box and therefore at whatever height the tabletop is, the rest of the office for everyone else around doesn’t change that much. That was one consideration, the other was how we could make a table in the simplest way. A lot of these offices don’t go to a furniture company. They don’t buy furniture, they just make it. They go to the carpenter's shop down the road and they make it out of three boards of chipboard. That’s what inspired the project. 

Especially at Vitra, they were so excited when I said about making something very rough and ready. We found that there is a whole world out there of companies, big companies with potentially big clients for people like Vitra. They say, “We like Vitra, we like the furniture, but it is too corporate, it is too sophisticated, too elegant. There is a lot of reasons why we appreciate it, but it’s not for us.”

Grcic sat at a Hack desk, in discussion with colleagues

But isn’t it interesting to try and formalise or design something that they are already doing out there? Doesn’t it become fake in a way to try and emulate the systems they already have?

It's something we discussed of course. First of all it was clear that in the end, our product, a Vitra product, will still not be for them. We are not going to sell it to Facebook or even the smaller startups. In the end it is a Vitra product and it will be bought by other sorts of companies. But we have had lots of interesting people responding to this desk. As banal as it may sound, a wooden panel hasn’t been seen in an office environment for a long time. Mark Zuckerberg is bringing it back because he makes furniture by himself or he uses a ping pong table. Facebook has a bit of a green agenda so for them it is cool and it doesn’t have to be super finished. If you spill your coffee it leaves a stain and it doesn’t matter. If it is a piece of wood, I can drill into it and add a hook or a shelf to it myself. They call that hacking the product as they do with hacking a programme. 

A version of the system was shown at Orgatec in Cologne in late 2014

So the trip wasn’t really a research trip to find out what would appeal to them, it was more for inspiration or a starting point for another type of project.

Maybe we had this idea that we would go there and find something and find an idea for a product that we could actually make for them. But when we actually got there we realised that it is a different world. What we could bring back from this trip is inspiration and certainly in our own way, a little bit of the spirit of how they work on things. Programming is very different from actually producing a product, because you programme something as the BETA version and you put it out and then you keep on optimising it and reworking it. With a product you have to make decisions at one point and you make an investment with it and then it is a product. If it doesn’t work, then it is very difficult to go back and change and alter it. 

There is something in the attitude that we thought we could bring back to Vitra, this idea of a very hands-on approach, trial and error. By doing it we learn, by making mistakes we learn and this is how we can actually produce something. In Vitra, things take a long time because everything is scrutinised and analysed. A lot of the time you decide that the idea is really interesting but there are so many problems with it in the end that you don’t do it. If you do it the Californian way, then it’s “That’s an interesting idea, lets do it.” You do something and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t work, but even if it doesn’t work you will have done something and it will get you going for what comes next. I think that was really what we got out of the trip - an attitude of working. It did work. We did the Hack desk within one year, which is very fast in Vitra terms. 

Also with Vitra taking that courage to show at Orgatec, it was also an attitude of “Okay, lets do it the way they do in California and show it in Orgatec. Even if it gets ripped apart and criticised we would have learnt something from that.”

The desk is designed to fold up to allow for easy storage. Grcic believes the design will simplify as he and Vitra develop it further into a real product

Is it a finished product as it stands now? 

No. It was very interesting because for us it was not a finished product but a serious concept that we could put out and learn from what comes back. The response was incredibly positive. It was almost scary how so many people projected ideas onto this. The sensation that this is just a wooden box with some nice hardware fixtures is refreshing. It's clear now that this must become a real project, because there is a real interest in such a thing. We set ourselves a clear target that in one year we want to bring a desk like this to the market. I think it has to be a lot simpler. It has been so interesting working with the engineers with their solutions, that I think the desk has turned out a little too over-engineered. That's the typical Vitra thing. It will be my job to steer back again and simplify it. Make it more raw and economical. 

Do you know what the price point is at this point in time.

It's a Vitra policy not to talk about a price. But they always keeps a cost sheet in any development, so we know where we are. At the moment it's not a cheap product, but it is within a price bracket that feels okay. This is not developed and I think we can strip it significantly and make it more economical. It will never be a cheap thing that can compete with something you buy from eBay or what people would buy who don’t really care about what they buy. That is not the point.